Thursday, January 31, 2019

Elizabeth Wein's "A Thousand Sisters"

Elizabeth Wein is the holder of a private pilot’s license and the owner of about a thousand maps. She is best known for her historical fiction about young women flying in World War II, including the New York Times bestselling Code Name Verity and Rose under Fire. Wein is also the author of Cobalt Squadron, a middle grade novel set in the Star Wars universe and connected to the 2017 release The Last Jedi.

Wein applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II, and reported the following:
Is Ford Madox Ford's statement "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you," accurate for my book?

That would be a resounding “Yes.”

Page 99 of A Thousand Sisters:
Valentina insisted on becoming a fighter pilot, and made her application to a male commander.

He told her, “No! No women!”

“I will go nowhere, I will fly fighters,” Valentina said, and refused to get up from the chair where she was sitting.

“All right, you can sit here!” said the commander. Then he left.

Valentina spent the entire night sitting in his office. When he came back the next morning she was still sitting there.

Finally she wore him down, and Valentina was allowed to stay with the all-male fighter pilot training regiment. She was given her own little private plywood cabin in a corner of the dugout where the other pilots slept. But she wasn’t allowed to fly.

Valentina had over ten times more flying hours than the rest of the students, so there wasn’t any point in putting her through the paces in the training aircraft with the young men.

Instead, she was given kitchen duty—but the commander promised that when the fighter aircraft arrived she could be the second person, after the top male student, to try one out!

Valentina would finally get to join Marina Raskova’s 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment late in 1943.
Valentina Petrochenkova’s story, as quoted above, appears as a sidebar on page 99 in A Thousand Sisters. The book tells the story of the formation and performance of three women’s combat regiments formed by celebrity aviator Marina Raskova in the Soviet Union during World War II.

The kind of gender discrimination faced by Valentina Petrochenkova in the passage on page 99, her reaction to it, and her determination to override it, are typical of the individual journeys that all Marina Raskova’s pilots had to make in order to join her regiments and fight for their country.

What the passage doesn’t show is the wonderful solidarity that the Soviet female aviators shared once they joined forces with other women. That was the outstanding aspect of “Raskova’s Regiments” for me, and it really shone as I read their individual memoirs. These women worked and fought in unimaginably challenging conditions: flying in open-cockpit aircraft in -40 degree weather, getting two or three hours of sleep after ten combat missions in a single night, crash-landing burning aircraft to avoid being captured by the enemy. Through it all, their sisterhood is what sustained them, and it’s the central theme of A Thousand Sisters.

There’s one more thing about this passage that I ought to point out: its use of direct quotations. I was very lucky to have so many personal histories and interviews to draw upon in my research for this work of non-fiction. As a result, I was able to incorporate plenty of quoted dialogue into the text throughout A Thousand Sisters. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I always think that a good conversation helps to make interesting reading!
Visit Elizabeth Wein's website.

Writers Read: Elizabeth Wein.

--Marshal Zeringue